Ultrafast lasers used to identify toxic hazards

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A team of scientists from Heriot-Watt University in the UK has developed a portable laser instrument capable of identifying chemical hazards instantly. In the future, the device could be used to increase the speed and safety of military and emergency operations, by verifying whether certain situations are safe or not.

In a military operation or emergency scenario there can be uncertainty over whether liquids or gases are toxic, which can lead to delays. Because the new technology is capable of identifying chemical substances immediately, it means that people in charge can decide whether a scenario is safe or whether decontamination procedures are required.

Professor Derryck Reid, leader of the Ultrafast Optics Group at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, used picosecond lasers to analyse the spectral signature of an object and determine whether it is toxic or not.

‘This system could rapidly sweep a person, vehicle, room or open space for the fingerprints of chemical or biological hazards,’ explained Reid. ‘ In a military scenario it could provide a commander with the information needed to continue an operation safely, but there are a number of potential civilian uses. The emergency services and airport security personnel could also find it extremely useful.’

The Heiot-Watt team has succeeded in integrating all of the components into a compact, portable unit, to make the device easily deployable in emergency situations. In addition, lead scientist Reid is currently investigating a higher power version of the system that could be mounted on a platform, to be used in applications such as on the front of a car to scan upcoming terrain.

The research has been funded by a contract for £74,000 from the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.